Here we go again -- it's February, and Sweeps is upon us. Four times a year, television networks figure out their local advertising rates based on ratings, which means our TVs are filled with celebrity guest stars, big plot twists and high profile investigative news reports. Regrettably, too often these "investigative news" reports are compilations of sensational and poorly researched anecdotes that distort the real lives and issues affecting our communities. Media have a responsibility to report on newsworthy topics in a fair, accurate and inclusive manner without turning to sensationalism for the sake of ratings. We in the public also have a responsibility: we must hold media accountable by writing and calling them when these profit-driven stories are aired, as well as when news agencies produce fair and inclusive stories.
To set the stage, it's helpful to explain a bit, what Sweeps Weeks are and how they function. Sweeps are the product of Nielsen Media Research. Nielsen uses "ratings" to analyze audience numbers and demographics. Most of us are familiar with the morning after numbers "20 million people tuned in to last night's American Idol." While networks use these ratings throughout the year, it is only the quarterly Sweeps that local affiliates use to determine who is watching a show, which advertisers would be the best fit, and how much stations should charge advertisers to air their ads. The resulting advertising dollars are the lifelines for networks and local affiliates.
With millions of dollars on the line each day, networks are desperate to attract the largest audiences during the designated weeks. This too often translates at a local level to pandering to the lowest common denominator of human sensibilities when "reporting" on news in order to attract viewers. These local sensational sweeps coverage can be catapulted into the national spotlight if left unchecked.
Last year offers a perfect example of one such instance of irresponsible local reporting making its way to a national platform. On February 28, 2007, local ABC24 and CW30 affiliates in Memphis, Tennessee aired the report, "Gays Taking Over," which made false claims about "lesbian gangs" preying on women in the community. On June 21, 2007, the Fox News Channel aired a similar episode nationally on The O'Reilly Factor about a "Lesbian Gang Epidemic" in America.
After a call to action from GLAAD, which gave our members an opportunity to call and write into the show, O'Reilly invited me on to address the story's fabrications and distortions. At the end of the segment O'Reilly admitted the report was exaggerated only after citing the Memphis story as a precursor to his show's report but promised, "We'll do better next time." (You know it was bad when O'Reilly promises a media watchdog organization that he'll do better.)
I will be the first to admit that the small piece of voyeur in me is curious as to the latest update on Britney Spears, but 95% of the time I turn on the news because I want to know the real stories of Americans across the country. With five major corporations providing our news, the tight competition for ad dollars manifests itself with the same story being told on every channel whether it is the latest development in the Anna Nicole Smith saga or the urgent alert about what's currently in your kitchen that will kill you, your child and the family pet (but you can wait until the 11 o'clock news to find out).
What is particularly frustrating about Sweeps is that networks seem not even to attempt to tell authentic stories. The local Memphis story is a perfect example. In the teaser for the original segment, the station had a dramatization of the "gang attacks" which played on historic racist tendencies of the area with Black women portraying physically imposing "lesbian gang members" with a diminutive white woman playing the victim. Many of the "witnesses" in the story were in shadows and no police records or reports to cite. In reviewing the tape and contacting the station with our concerns, GLAAD asked them if they had ever done a story about local lesbians. The answer was simple and, sadly, expected: no.
So how to remedy the situation? If media are looking for compelling and captivating stories, please call me. I have tons. There is the story of Seattle's Charlene Strong being denied emergency room access to be with her dying partner and the legislation for which she became an advocate. There is Kourt Osborn, a transgender student at Southern Utah University, who was denied housing because of his gender identity. There are the New York teenagers who are learning to share their personal stories through an innovative journalism program, a particularly important step toward visibility because of the growing epidemic of homeless gay and transgender youth across New York City. These are just three of the thousands stories across the country waiting to be told.
In the fight to be Number One, media sacrifice the nuances of our reality for the sake of a "sexy" lead; however, we must not sacrifice fair and accurate news simply because it is Sweeps. Media outlets, especially those telling our stories in local communities, need to hear from us. Sensational reporting as a ploy for inflated viewership is insulting to audience intelligence and a betrayal to the real stories that the public deserves to hear and we should'¹t stand for it.